Yesterday two Los Angeles broadcast TV stations announced a plan to enter a pilot program to demonstrate the feasibility of channel sharing. They plan to experiment with broadcasting the streams of both stations over the infrastructure and, more importantly, the spectrum of only one. This is exciting news – channel sharing potentially allows for significant amounts of spectrum to be unleashed for mobile broadband. Broadcasters also win though the deal. When two stations are able to squeeze into a single 6 megahertz channel, they maintain virtually all of their previous revenue streams (including retransmission fees) plus gain a cash infusion by putting their extra spectrum up for sale in the incentive auctions. In the end, channel sharing means more efficient use of valuable low-band frequencies, more spectrum available for mobile broadband, a higher chance of a successful incentive auction, all while those few who watch TV over the air remain able to do so. This is one of those rare win-win-win situations.
Channel sharing has been a long time coming. The National Broadband Plan identified the first step in recommending that the FCC “establish a licensing framework to permit two or more stations to share a 6 megahertz channel.” Broadcasting stations were already able to send out multiple TV channels on a single channel, but they weren’t allowed to share their license with another station under the Commission’s rules. Last April the FCC changed their rules to make channel sharing possible. Under the new rules, eligible stations are able to share channels on a voluntary basis. Each station keeps its original call sign, as well as its FCC license and the carriage rights that come with it. Licensees have the flexibility to divide a 6 megahertz channel as they see fit, provided they still operate at a set minimum capacity.
The two LA broadcast stations, KJLA, a small multilingual station, and KLCS, a public broadcaster affiliated with PBS, volunteered to work together on the experiment. The two hope to start the pilot in the first quarter of this year, assuming that the Commission approves of the pilot quickly. Neither station has committed to participating in the upcoming incentive auctions and will return to their separate channels when the pilot is finished. However, the experiment will provide everyone with important data on the feasibility of channel sharing, which will be valuable to other broadcasters who are considering sharing. Broadcasters still on the fence, trying to decide whether to participate in the incentive auctions, may see channel sharing as a great way to see some income from the incentive auction without necessarily exiting the business.
A promising channel sharing pilot will help ensure a successful incentive auction. Furthermore, real interest in channel sharing shows that the incentive auctions are already starting to work their intended effect – helping broadcasters realize the true value of their spectrum licenses. In a world where spectrum is in short supply, squeezing multiple stations into a single channel makes a lot of sense.
Photo credit: Flickr user vistavision